The air was beginning to shimmer a warm golden grey as we pulled up to the summer home in Hämeenlinna. It sits by a lake, of course. Between the house and the lake are apple trees and a sauna. The light wrapped us, holding on a little longer, and then it departed. By this hour, dinner had been made, and we ate. And then, flashlights in hand, we walked down to the sauna and disrobed.
The changing room exuded the familiar sauna smell of wood, birch, damp. I stacked my clothes in a little pile. The lack of electricity emboldened me somewhat: we were girls and guys together. Despite being no sauna newbie, this was fresh to me. I had been camping in Siberia, then bumming around on couches in the Baltic countries; hadn’t touched a razor in a month. But we were all enveloped in darkness. Skin brushed skin. I relaxed. Löyly, steam, washed over me. It snuck into my nostrils, my throat, down into my chest. I dripped.
Emerging into the chilly, so crisp, night, I carefully padded my way over the grass, down to the dock, into the lake. The cold water forced the air out of me. I submerged myself, scrambled up the ladder, back onto the dock, back onto a bench in a sauna, bodies all around. Repeat. Repeat. And a final rinse under the cold showerhead outside. My skin flushed; I felt fresh; I felt relaxed.
The sun brushed our cheeks, soft and cool. We gathered round for the rules of “the Olympics.” The second of three tasks: find the three best mushrooms. Off we tore. Scrambling down forested hills, dirt dislodged, coating my ankles. Running, eyes fixed on the forest floor, looking as keenly as I could. No mushrooms. Back onto the road, up a hill: here are some. Are the pink ones safe? No? Only a couple of tatti for me. The whistle, tearing back up the driveway, panting. Here are my meager findings. But I’m smiling. Because hurtling through the forest, eyeing the details, is exhilaration.
Later, in a calmer manner, we returned to the woods. The pink mushrooms actually are edible after boiling, I learned. We strolled and stooped slightly apart from each other, gathering. My basket filled with pinks and one beautiful megatatti. I balanced my can on the uneven ground, gathered the few mushrooms I sighted, took a sip, stood. Simple, meditative, pleasure.
It’s still light, and it’s back to the sauna. Everyone can see everyone, but it feels just normal, just natural. I’m probably the only one even thinking about nakedness—simply that it’s a thing, not that it’s weird—from my outsider’s perspective. In the dim, steamy light of the sauna I learn some new words, ettu peppu and taka peppu. Front butt and back butt. Each peppu is designated as to fit more people on the sauna bench. We sweat on each other. Some of the guys hum the dwarf song from the Hobbit, and then practice the chorus for System of a Down’s Vicinity of Obscenity. It would feel surreal if it didn’t feel so right.
Again, I pad through the grass and vault into the lake. Then I stand in front of the sauna, sipping a cider and chatting with whoever else is taking their break, steam rising from our skin. Then back into the löyly, drifting toward the humming of the men, hovering in front of the tiered benches in the cooler air before I am labeled as an ettu or taka peppu and squeeze in.
Steam. Jump. Cool. Repeat.
I feel calm; I feel free.
I must be glowing after the sauna, for I feel more alive. We all change into formal dinner clothes. I even put on lipstick. It’s time for dinner, the centerpiece of this entire weekend, which is a crayfish party, a Swedish-Finn tradition. The main platter is a spiral of red claws. Elina and I enjoy our vegetarian alternative of artichokes. We pass around rye bread with a mushroom salad made from our day’s foragings. There are toasts. After the toasts come songs. Many are in Swedish and I fumble through the lyric book that is passed to me. After songs come shots.
After dinner comes dancing, to the most eclectic selection. I don’t even remember what was playing apart from when I delayed heading to bed because I simply couldn’t miss Start Wearing Purple or Dancing Lasha Tumbai. But I remember the dancing. Sometimes I sat and watched as the clock crept well past midnight, regaining my strength. Most times I bopped along with everyone else. On occasion I was swept off my feet—literally—by far better dancers than I. We laughed, we spun. We were silly, we were crazy. We were glad.
I love Finland for many reasons, many of which relate back to some of my favorite Finnish activities. I’m lucky to have spent long periods of time living with Finnish friends who have introduced me to all sorts of Finnish customs. When you visit Finland, make sure to try the following activities in order to enhance your bound-to-be-wonderful experience!
This is the last article in a series I was asked to write for Pink Pangea as their Country Expert on Finland. But don’t worry–just because I’m done with this series, I’m not done with writing about Finland! I’m never done with Finland.
I don’t know why, exactly. From 2006 on, there has always been a tug. It can get severe. In 2007, on the departing train, I cried for an hour, by myself, heavily. I was leaving a place that wasn’t wholly mine, but felt like it should be. I was leaving a place that felt more like mine than anywhere I’d been before. Always the question: what if I were Finnish? What if I could stay?
And when I am gone, well, there floats a weight of absence somewhere in my chest. It dimmed somewhat when I knew that I’d be back, just like the year before. Until I wasn’t. Until I sat at my computer, doing my graduate school work but really half examining my brown desk, the black veins running through, the weight pushing its way closer to my throat: I’m not going back this year. I don’t know when I’m going back. And everyone in Finland moved on with their lives and I moved on with mine, only there was a shadow where I wasn’t going. For four years.
Finally, on September 1, 2014, I was on a ferry from Tallinn entering Helsinki’s harbor. Nevermind that I hadn’t done this in five years—it fit. I knew what I was doing. And I admit I looked askance at the three American girls I overheard. Too loud, I thought, too shallow. Stop ogling the men so others hear. I’m a noisy American too, but more Finnish than they. This is my place, I thought possessively. Shh.
But we pulled into the harbor and I saw a ferris wheel. That wasn’t there before. I went to the train station to meet my friend. Were there more people? Was it more diverse now? Had the trends changed? We took the tram down Mannerheimintie to her place. Entire new buildings arose. I had some trouble moving on without Helsinki, but Helsinki moved on without me, of course. The Helsinki in my mind was no longer the Helsinki of reality.
It moved on, but it was still there. I rushed around from the open arms of one friend to another. A week is no longer enough time, though it was never really enough. I explored new places but also old and most of all I spent time with my friends. That’s why I was there, mostly. How much do I love Finland for itself, and how can I piece those parts away from the people who introduced me to it?
So I went out into this city that was what I knew, but also not quite. I went mushrooming. With friends. I took some walks. With friends. I drank coffee. With friends. I went to art museums. With friends. We all ate dinner in my friend’s apartment, all the friends. I went on a hyper-Finnish cottage weekend. Always, with friends.
Helsinki isn’t mine. Finland isn’t mine. But these people, they’re my people. They’re my friends. So maybe, maybe, Finland is my place, in some ways. Indifferent to me, it shifts, but within there are pockets of caring. And I am comfortable there, still. So it is mine—and it isn’t. That’s everything.
When my Finnish friend Elina visited my small Kentucky hometown, her accent prompted a lot of curiosity. We were sitting in a coffeeshop, and along with the embarrassing blank stares and questions came odd assumptions about food: “You must eat a lot of herring there!”
From what I’ve heard, the stereotypes surrounding Finnish cuisine presume the consumption of much fish and potatoes. Even as a vegetarian with a limited diet, I love Finnish food and have found it to carry options for everyone. Here are some foods I highly suggest you try the next time you visit Finland.
I disentangled myself from the small car, swinging my backpack over my shoulders while waving goodbye to the two older Estonian ladies who gave me a ride to the Viru Bog trailhead from the too far away bus stop I landed at when the driver ignored my request for the stop before. The women smiled widely, kindly at me and I grabbed comfort in those smiles—not because I was nervous but because they acknowledged me as a young woman, out on my own, telling me how wonderful it was and to be careful and how to find my way back to Tallinn. They drove away and I plodded onto the path.
The weeks behind me stretched out full of people, amazing people, people I held close and continue to. But the fact remained: every day I spent with others, every night others slept near. Now I was alone for the whole day, in the woods, and it was a change, is all, a change born from a stubborn curiosity that latches. Lahemaa National Park, I had repeatedly explained, was the first national park of the Soviet Union! It is supposed to be very beautiful. There is a bog with a watchtower over it. There are trails and campgrounds, and even villages. I’m going there. I had decided while leafing through pages on Estonia. Though my time in the country was still too short, I was determined to see more than last time, and that included some wild places.
The soft light filtered its way through the trees. After a couple of minutes of walking and looking around, I came to the elevated wooden pathway that made its way through Viru Bog. This was my little hike. I slowly set out, pondering each step, looking around carefully. I had time.
The boardwalk split—I took the shorter way and came to a dead end platform with a bench. I sat and slowly ate some of the karjalanpiirakat I had found much to my delight at the grocery store that morning while getting provisions. Karjalanpiirakat are bliss. I sat there in the larger silence that was punctuated by smaller-scale noise: something created a ripple in the water; I heard a bird. I drank a bit and started walking again.
I stopped to take photos, and I stopped to read every sign along the path. There are sundews, one told me. I squatted down at the edge of the board walk, careful not to topple off, and indeed—there were. Periodically I would crouch, to peer at these cute little sundews as well as mushrooms and mosses. Then I would stand up and take in the larger sights in front of me: trees, yellow grasses, boggy water, sometimes grouped into a pond. The path led to a tower, windy at the top, but which provided a more than adequate view by which I, surrounded, ate the rest of my karjalanpiirakat.
The trail ended. I had traversed the bog, but still had plenty of time. So I walked slowly among more trails, realizing that there were blueberries in the woods. I began to pick them, gathering a fistful before smashing them into in my mouth. Over and over. My palm turned purple. I decided then to pick blueberries for my current and upcoming hosts as a gift, something that required more effort than popping into a shop. I ate my second yogurt despite not being hungry, simply so I could use the container. I rinsed with my drinking water, and then began to pick, stooped among the bushes. By now I had migrated off any main park paths, and was in fact on a small trail that led directly off the road to nowhere, ending after just a minute’s walk. I circled around, picking, picking, eating, and before I expected, my containers were full.
It was time to go back. I was done, and I wanted to be back in Tallinn before dark. No bus stop presented itself to me so I ambled up to a women changing shoes by her car. “Do you speak English?” “No…” “По-русски?” “Да!” And thus, in Russian, I asked her about the bus. She wasn’t sure because she came by car, but she asked the two men she was with if they could give me a ride. Sure, they agreed. So I climbed in with Vera, her husband, Andrei, and “grandpa,” Georg. My Russian-speaking American self charmed them right away, especially when I explained I knew about United World Colleges and that, in fact, I knew an Estonian who went to one. Their son had too, and he was now studying at a liberal arts college in the U.S. Dmitri endlessly told me I should be a politician, since I could speak Russian. They asked me all sorts of questions about my travels and about education in the States. Instead of dropping me off at a bus stop near where they lived at the outskirts of Tallinn as they had originally agreed, they went ahead and drove me right to the old town, near where I was staying. I felt a little sad to wave goodbye.
Truly, if I had to choose one favorite city, I would pick Helsinki. I happily had the chance to live one full summer there, sharing an apartment with a Finnish friend and studying Finnish at Helsinki Summer University. This was my first proper experience in Helsinki, since the first time I chose to visit Helsinki, it was empty.
In 2006, my family landed at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, spending one night in the capital before taking the train to Seinäjoki the following morning. We arrived in Finland on midsummer, Juhannus, which is an important holiday. People leave the city and flock to their summer cabins. No joke, the streets were basically empty.
However, now I have ample experience both living in and short-term visiting Helsinki to advise you on what to do in this wonderful city that is not usually so empty!
I took one photo in Tartu, which stands opposing the whirlwind night and day I spent there. You see, Tartu isn’t undeserving of photos, but the hours I spent there were filled with people moreso than scenery, and we ran through the dark for more hours than we spent traipsing through the daylight.
Travel expanded this day for me. I went from Riga to Sigulda to Riga to Tartu, Estonia. The bus pulled in at 11:15pm and Tiina, my BeWelcome host, was there at the bus station waiting for me. She brought me back to her place, fed me a snack, and then we set out for the night. Tiina had just finished her last master’s exam for her degree (Finno-Ugric languages—how cool is that?) and we were meeting some friends of hers to celebrate. This gathering also entailed showing the visitor, me, all aspects of nightlife Tartu, a tour of sorts.
If you think hanging out with a troop of strangers is awkward, you should spend more time with these welcoming types. Over and over I find that the people I meet through hospitality websites are among the most open and genuine there are. Despite the long hours, I sat in the first bar with Tiina and two of her friends, also foreigners to Estonia in fact, and we chatted amicably.
Ready to go and begin the tour, we stopped in another supposedly cool bar, now packed with Erasmus students swarming along on their first bar crawl of the school year. We walked through the taken seats and moved on. Upstairs to a weird retro disco bar we went, empty but for two creepy-vibing men and one woman, who grabbed onto me and blurted something in Estonian that I obviously didn’t understand. The song changed and she motioned us off the floor. What? I took this moment to run back down the steps and the others piled out after me, laughing. The women wanted us to leave the dance floor to protest a song she didn’t like, but we just left. They had shown me the sight of this funny place, and so and we walked on giggling.
Another bar. It was too crowded so we sat on the stairs near the entry, talking until it closed. And then, a club. We trooped in. I had spent the day hiking and was dressed in jeans and I don’t even remember what. A hoodie probably. Tiina likewise was wearing casual clothes. Around us, people all done up, looking for something, radiated self-consciousness, bumping into others casually. We danced like crazy and how glorious, I thought, it is to just be a little mad and uncaring and comfortable just as you are. Tiina bounced around in front of me and I admired her so.
We got hot from dancing and parted for the last stop on the tour, the bar of sticky beer floors and Estonians slumped over in drunken sleep. I navigated my way through the bodies, observing. We ran into Tiina’s friends at every turn and chatted for moments.
And finally it was after 5am and Tiina and I walked back to her apartment, not to sleep right away, but to chat, conversing more openly than I talk to many people I’ve known for much longer than 12 or so hours.
In the morning, or rather around noon, Tiina and I went for a breakfast of crepes. Then she showed me Tartu by day. We walked through the streets that looked much different now in the daylight. We went to the market and Tiina bought some beans that her grandparents would cook for her when she was younger. We went and sat by the river for awhile, just talking. Then, tired still, we went back to her place, where Tiina boiled the beans in salty water for a tasty dinner. She helped me buy my ferry tickets from Tallinn to Helsinki and arranged for me to stay in her friends’ place in Tallinn the two nights I’d be there.
We had to walk quickly to catch my bus since we had been lying about chatting for a little too long. We hugged and wished that we’d see each other again. In fact, I was to see Tiina just a day later in Tallinn.
All this to say: it is the genuine to their core people who I admire. It is the open and the embracing people. And more often than not, I find these people while traveling, because they’re the ones who welcome the wanderers in, with a full understanding. It is with these people that you don’t need to feel at all closed and shifty; you just act as your true self along with them and there’s no exclusion. Tiina taught me that the only non-borrowed word in Estonian with the stress not on the first syllable is aitäh, thank you. Tiina clarified for me why I stubbornly stick to using hospitality exchanges as much as I can—for the people I meet, for the people I want to meet again.
I will always remember crazy dancing in the club, appearing just as I was, not even caring. Not even caring. Aitäh, Tartu; aitäh, Tiina.
As a Westerner traveling to another Western country, I sometimes can get slightly lulled by a sense of familiarity. On the very surface, things appear to be similar to my home in the United States. It is easy for me to figure out transportation, use the grocery stores, and even the bathrooms, for example. In this way, when I visit Finland, it is much easier than when I travel to non-Western countries. And truthfully, Finland is very tourist-friendly. However, it is also its own unique country, and with that come a few things that would be useful to know before visiting Finland yourself!
I got off the bus in Sigulda and began wandering in what I thought was the direction of the sites based on my previous glances at maps. Castles, palaces, forest—I’d see what I’d see. Only shouldering my little backpack (my large one sat in storage at the Riga bus station), armed with water and not really any snacks, I had the day to spare before taking an evening bus from Riga to Tartu, Estonia.
I found the Gauja River after hopping down a muddy batch of stairs and walked across the bridge alongside the cars passing by. To my upper right I saw the tower of Turaida Castle peeking out from above the trees. Aha, I’ll go there, I thought. After examining my options, I opted for a path through the woods along the river that led in the right direction. There were mosquitoes.
The path emerged by Gutmanis Cave, where I asked a park staff member, skirting the crowd of tourists on one of those mega clunky buses, how to get there. I’d walk along the road, she told me, right up the hill, around to the left, and then I’d see it. Or, I could climb up above the cave, and follow the dirt path, but that was tougher.
Well I didn’t want to walk along the road.
So I hiked up the stairs, quite many, up over the cave, well above the road, and followed the lightly marked trail. A few times I must have lost my way and taken secondary paths, because I ended up going downhill and meeting the road, at which point I’d sigh, getting tired, and then trundle upward again, because I stubbornly prefer the woods.
The clouds darkened threateningly.
The path emerged from the trees at spots and I was essentially walking in people’s backyards. I saw their cute houses, their parked cars, their animals, their gardens, the steely sky.
The clouds let go and rain crashed down. Luckily I had remembered my raincoat and the rain cover for my backpack so I threw those on and continued toward the castle. Somehow, I let the rain wash over me and didn’t terribly mind. Once I made it to the grounds, the rain slowed, then stopped. The sun came out. I wandered around the castle grounds until I estimated that I needed to head back to Sigulda in time to grab a late lunch before my bus back to Riga.
Turaida Castle was nice, really, but the best part of my excursion was walking on the ridge above the road behind others’ homes. There, by myself, peering at authentic, present life, which struck me as more beautiful, more fascinating than a shell. And me—more vulnerable, more exposed, more open to it all.
On my way to the local bus stop, I grabbed an apple off a tree to munch.